Universal Negro Improvement Association

The Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was established by Marcus Garvey in Jamaica in 1914. Garvey arrived in the United States on 23rd March 1916 and immediately launched a year-long tour of the country. He organized the first branch of UNIA in June 1917 and began published the Negro World, a journal that promoted his African nationalist ideas. Garvey's organization was extremely popular and by 1919 UNIA had 30 branches and over 2 million members.

Like the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) Garvey campaigned against lynching, Jim Crow laws, denial of black voting rights and racial discrimination. Where UNIA differed from other civil rights organizations was on how the problem could be solved. Garvey doubted whether whites in the United States would ever agree to African Americans being treated as equals and argued for segregation rather than integration. Garvey suggested that African Americans should go and live in Africa. He wrote that he believed "in the principle of Europe for the Europeans, and Asia for the Asiatics" and "Africa for the Africans at home and abroad".

Marcus Garvey began to sign up recruits who were willing to travel to Africa and "clear out the white invaders". He formed an army, equipping them with uniforms and weapons. Garvey appealed to the new militant feelings of black that followed the end of the First World War and asked those African Americans who had been willing to fight for democracy in Europe to now join his army to fight for equal rights.

In 1919 Garvey formed the Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company. With $10,000,000 invested by his supporters Garvey purchased two steamships to take African Americans to Africa. At a UNIA conference in August, 1920, Garvey was elected provisional president of Africa.

After making a couple of journeys to Africa the Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company ran out of money. Marcus Garvey was a poor businessman and although he was probably honest himself, several people in his company had been involved in corruption. Garvey was arrested and charged with fraud and in 1925 was sentenced to five years imprisonment. He had served half of his sentence when President Calvin Coolidge commuted the rest of his prison term and had him deported to Jamaica. UNIA never recovered from the scandal and had ceased to exist by 1930.

Primary Sources

(1) Marcus Garvey, Philosophy and Opinions (1923)

The Universal Negro Improvement Association for five years has been proclaiming to the world the readiness of the Negro to carve out a pathway for himself in the course of life. Men of other races and nations have become alarmed at this attitude of the Negro in his desire to do things for himself and by himself. This alarm has become so universal that organizations have been brought into being here, there and everywhere for the purpose of deterring and obstructing this forward move of our race. Propaganda has been waged here, there and everywhere for the purpose of misinterpreting the intention of this organization; some have said that this organization seeks to create discord and discontent among the races; some say we are organized for the purpose of hating other people. Every sensible, sane and honest-minded person knows that the Universal Negro Improvement Association has no such intention We are organized for the absolute purpose of bettering our condition, industrially, commercially, socially, religiously and politically.

(2) Booker T. Washington, The Future of the American Negro (1899)

I see no way out of the Negro's condition in the South by returning to Africa. Aside from other insurmountable obstacles, there is no place in Africa for him to go where his condition would be improved. All Europe - especially England, France and Germany - has been running a mad race for the last twenty years, to see which could gobble up the greater part of Africa; and there is practically nothing left. In a talk with Henry M. Stanley, the explorer, he told me that he knew no place in Africa where the Negroes of the United States might go to advantage.

(3) Letter sent to the Attorney General Harry Daugherty, by Harry Pace and eight other people from New York City ( 15th January, 1923)

As the chief law enforcement officer of the nation, we wish to call your attention to a heretofore unconsidered menace to harmonious race relationships. There are in our midst certain Negro criminals and potential murderers, both foreign and American born, who are moved and actuated by intense hatred against the white race. These undesirables continually proclaim that all white people are enemies to the Negro.

The movement known as the Universal Negro Improvement Association has done much to stimulate the violent temper of this dangerous element. Its president and moving spirit is one Marcus Garvey, an unscrupulous demagogue, who has ceaselessly and assiduously sought to spread among Negroes distrust and hatred of all white people.

Universal Negro Improvement Association is composed chiefly of the most primitive and ignorant element of West Indian and American Negroes. The so-called respectable element of the movement are largely ministers without churches, physicians without patients, lawyers without clients and publishers without readers, who are usually in search of "easy money". In short, this organization is composed in the main of Negro sharks and ignorant Negro fanatics.

(4) Marcus Garvey, Pittsburgh Courier (12th April, 1930)

Among the many things discussed at the first International convention of the Negro Peoples of the World, held under the auspices of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, was the great need for steamship communication among the different branches of the Negro race scattered in Africa, the Americas and the West Indies. It was in keeping with the need that I founded the Black Star Line in 1919.

Having travelled extensively throughout the world and seriously studying the economical, commercial and industrial needs of our people, I found out that the quickest and easiest way to reach them was by steamship communication. So immediately after I succeeded in forming the Universal Negro Improvement Association in America, I launched the idea of floating ships under the direction of Negroes.

Growing up as I did in my own island, and travelling out to the outside world with open eyes, I saw that the merchant marines of all countries were in the hands of white men. Captains and officers of ships were all of the white race, and their very presence in ports, dressed up in the uniforms of their respective company or nation tended to lend a prestige to the white race and compelled an impression upon the black race that aimed to lift the respect for the white race to a higher state of appreciation among the blacks. I thought if we could launch ships and have our own black captain and officers of our race, too, we would be respected in the mercantile and commercial world, thereby adding appreciative dignity to our down-trodden people.

(5) Marcus Garvey, Aims and Objects of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (1937)

Africa is the motherland of all Negroes, from where all Negroes in slavery were taken against their will. It is the natural home of the race. One day all Negroes hope to look to Africa as the land of their vine and fig tree. It is necessary, therefore, to help the tribes who live in Africa to advance to a higher state of civilization.

The Negro should not have but one nation, but work with the hope that these independent nations will become parts of the great racial empire. It is necessary, therefore, to strengthen the hand of every free and independent Negro state so that they may be able to continue their independence.

Every community where the Negro lives should be developed by him in his own section, so that he may control that section or part of the community. He should segregate himself residentially in that community so as to have political power, economic power, and social power in that community.